Biden-Putin duel on the Ukraine war anniversary
After a string of speeches from both sides in the run up to the Ukraine invasion anniversary, the situation seems to be heating up. Amidst the striking images of President Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv, and his follow up speech in Warsaw where he raised the loud slogans “Kyiv stands strong” and “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia,” Putin was also busy in commemorating the “anniversary” with back to back three retaliatory speeches in three days in which he announced the unilateral suspension of the New START treaty as well as announced to deploy new Sarmat multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles this year.
The western perception is that, with no major battlefield victories to report in time for the anniversary and Biden trying to rebuke him by journeying to Kyiv, Putin has instead turned to nuclear rhetoric and suspended participation in the New START arms control treaty.
There is no denying that Putin was hoping that the Russian troops would be able to capture Bakhmut ahead of the anniversary and he would be able to tell the war victories to the Russian public to massively mobilise their support for his Ukraine venture. But it did not happen. He had no “good news” from the war front to share with the Russians, so he ultimately used these two symbolic actions – nuclear rhetoric and New START suspension – to add spice to his dueling speeches on the state of the nation and the Defenders of the Fatherland day.
While President Biden reiterated the American support for Ukraine in very categorical terms and vowed that Washington is there for “as long as it takes”. Despite such generous and passionate words from President Biden, one cannot ignore the legitimate concerns and uncertainties surrounding the US approach to the ongoing conflict and its differences with Ukraine.
These issues manifest in multiple ways, from the types of weapons the US is willing to provide to divergent scenarios about how the war may ultimately come to a close. The phrase “as long as it takes” means different dogmas to different stakeholders, and signs indicate that this war – one that Putin cannot afford to lose – may continue for many more years, testing the West’s tenacity with regard to Ukrainian sovereignty and stability.
President Biden’s dramatic appearance in Kyiv, which is being compared with two other defining trips to divided Berlin by Presidents John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan that were flashpoints of the Cold War and each of which sent their own image of US resolve to the Kremlin, was designed more to influence domestic audience than attract the international community. It definitely helped him in exposing growing opposition to the war among the conservative Republicans, which is going to help him in winning the American public support for the quantum of the future aid packages for Ukraine.
Ironically, one potential consequence of Biden’s visit is that it could inadvertently reinforce Putin’s narrative at home that he is combating the West rather than an independent, sovereign nation – an argument that has gained traction among some Russians and one that Biden has been attempting to counteract. At the moment, in spite of all the closeness and chumminess, Biden and Zelensky have divergent views on what kind of weapon the US is willing to provide.
While Zelensky is pushing hard for F-16 fighter jets, Biden is quite reluctant to agree, highlighting the dilemma of how far to go in supporting Ukraine without provoking a direct clash with Russia.
This tension is further heightened by the growing support from the influential bipartisan members of the Congress for sending F-16s to Ukraine. As momentum builds for this request, it remains to be seen how Biden will navigate this delicate balance. Will we see the repetition of the tanks episode, where Biden was adamant to provide M1 Abram tanks to Ukraine for many months, but eventually he yielded to the pressure from his peers in Europe.
According to Putin, the West bears historical responsibility for the current breakdown in world politics and the destruction of the evolving international relations system. Putin argues that Ukraine has become a pawn in the West’s irresponsible political game. He claims that the US and the global elite behind Biden seek to continue forming a new global coalition around the US, including non-Western countries, by supporting and even aggravating the conflict with Russia.
Meanwhile, Biden’s demonstrative trip to Kiev and Warsaw was an attempt to justify the previous large-scale assistance to Ukraine by referring to the growing threat from Russia against a number of countries in the region. Meanwhile, the rumors are rife that Putin is planning to launch a spring offensive to grab some selective territories inside Ukraine.
He knows well that the Russian forces, hampered by numerous logistical handicaps as we have seen in the last one year, have limited capacity to move forward. That is why he is eyeing on only soft and easy targets inside Ukraine. Zelensky, on the other hand, is eagerly waiting for the pledged weapons so as to be ready on time to deflect the spring offensive. Russia still controls almost a fifth of Ukraine, despite losing some of the occupied territories last year.
Putin is realigning his military operation, after learning his mistakes in the recent past in the battleground, will employ a different war strategy in the next phase of the war. Zelensky, who is too much dependent upon the continued assistance from the West to muffle the Russian onslaught, is using all the gimmicks in the trade to keep intact the supply chain of hardware to the Ukrainian forces.
At the moment, the Biden and his allies are ostensibly confident about the Ukrainian forces to at least push back the Russians to the pre-February 2022 border, but this is a distant dream. Putin will not gulf down such scenario easily and would resort to the tactical nuclear option to avoid the embarrassment of losing the occupied territories. So, all is set for another intense phase of the Ukraine war.
Dr. Khalid wrote from Karachi, Pakistan.